- Prof. Dr. Shyam P Lohani
Every year poisonous mushrooms kill hundreds of people in Nepal. Oftentimes the entire family members consume wild mushrooms and suffer from poisoning. Many succumb to poisoning. Spring signals the start of the wild mushroom growing season. Since ancient times, wild mushrooms have been gathered for consumption throughout the world. During that time, many people may have become ill or died after inadvertently consuming poisonous mushrooms. People may also have to experiment with food that every meal had the potential to be sickening, and correctly identifying wild food meant the survival of humanity.
Earth is home to an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi. Out of them, some 140,000 species are categorised as mushrooms. To date, about 14,000 mushroom species are known and around 7,000 species are considered to have a varying degree of edibility, and more than 3,000 species of mushrooms are known to be edible. About 200 mushroom species have so far been experimentally grown, 100 species economically cultivated, 60 commercially cultivated and 10 have reached industrial status. Further, 2000 mushroom species are believed to have medicinal properties with a variety of health attributes. The number of poisonous mushrooms is very few (only approximately one per cent). However, some 30 species are considered to be potentially lethal.
The most common myths associated with poisonous mushrooms are related to their identification. The general concept that all white mushrooms are safe to eat is wrong and they result in poisoning. One hazardous white mushroom that is poisonous is called the “destroying angel.” People often think that heating the poisonous mushroom and stirring it with a silver spoon will draw the poison out of it and that silver spoon turns black, if poisonous. But you should never try this because this is false. Many people think that any mushroom is safe to eat once it is completely cooked. That is also another myth that you would not want to try because you may become severely ill.
Another misconception is that poisonous mushrooms taste bad. That means the one you are eating may taste very good to you, but it can still be poisonous. The next myth is that poisonous mushrooms are red. Indeed, a poisonous mushroom can be of any colour. People often think that mushrooms grown in groups are safe to eat. Some ethnic people in Nepal have the misconception that the first picked mushroom should be offered to God so that subsequent mushrooms will be safe to eat.
Mushroom poisoning occurs when people eat wild mushrooms they have mistakenly identified as safe to eat. People may easily misidentify wild mushrooms. They happen to do so when the general appearance like the colour, of a poisonous mushroom resembles that of a safe one. There is no simple rule that exists for distinguishing edible mushrooms from poisonous ones. In more than 95 per cent of mushroom toxicity cases, misidentification of the species by an amateur mushroom hunter leads to poisoning. Poisoning may also occur after the mushroom is consumed by people for recreation as few of the mushrooms have mind-altering properties.
In hilly areas of our country, mushroom hunters pick wild mushrooms for consumption. Similarly, a child may pick and eat a mushroom while playing outdoors even in urban areas where wild mushrooms grow in the spring season. Many types of mushrooms grow in the wild. Very few are poisonous. But those that are poisonous can be quite dangerous. Unless you are an expert, it’s hard to say which mushroom is poisonous and which is not.
Mushroom poisonings can be divided into non-life-threatening and early-onset poisonings, where symptoms appear within 6 hours of eating a mushroom which is often self-limiting. People may start showing symptoms more than six hours after the consumption of mushrooms in case of life-threatening and late-onset poisonings. The mushrooms that are indigested are often lethal. Therefore, it is said that the longer it takes to show the symptoms, the deadlier it is.
Symptoms of mushroom poisoning vary with the types of mushroom eaten. Many wild mushrooms may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which could lead to dehydration and an emergency room visit. Others can interact with alcohol to cause severe stomach upset, headache, and high blood pressure. Some can cause hallucinations and coma. A few cause no effects right away and for up to 24 hours, but can damage the liver. So, a liver transplant may be necessary to survive.
The simple rule of treatment of mushroom poisoning is to consider it seriously. It may possibly be lethal if a definitive identification of the mushroom cannot be made. Once mushroom toxicity is diagnosed, treatment is largely supportive and symptomatic.
Public awareness is key to preventing wild mushroom poisoning. Mass-targeted awareness campaigns should be designed for hilly areas of the country to prevent hundreds of deaths due to poisoning following wild mushroom consumption every year. The best way of prevention from toxicity is to avoid eating wild mushrooms once and for all. It is important for all of us not to experiment on eating wild mushrooms which may turn into our last meal.
Originally published on The Rising Nepal, 23 Aug, 2020
Feature Image: FAO